It was easy to have a high opinion of the Predators’ summer.
They got out from under the onerous PK Subban contract, betting (correctly) he was washed. They used that money to bring in long-sought center option Matt Duchene, seemingly bolstering their chances at once again going deep into the playoffs.
Subban now comes across as definitively washed, as things have turned sour for the Devils, a team the Preds struggled to beat on the weekend. Even if Dante Fabbro hasn’t been a 1-for-1 replacement deep in that lineup, he at least costs about one-tenth of what the one-time Norris winner did. Duchene, meanwhile, has been fine. Maybe not “worth the money” in the traditional sense but he is the team’s leading scorer among forwards.
And therein lies the problem. Duchene has been fine, if underwhelming, and he and Viktor Arvidsson (now on the shelf for a few weeks because of Robert Bortuzzo) have been the team’s most effective forwards who are actually counted on to score. Good contributions from the Nick Boninos and Craig Smiths of the world aren’t really the point, even if they are helpful.
Kyle Turris, a previous trade prize, has been healthy-scratched a ton this season, to the point of that particular process becoming self-parody. Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen have chipped in a bit up front — the latter largely because he provides value (and gets opportunities other players do not) on the power play — but like almost everyone else, not to the point their paychecks would suggest. Johansen, in fact, has been below replacement level.
Mikael Granlund has done little or nothing since his trade from Minnesota, despite being counted on to return to form and become a reliable middle-six guy. He hasn’t.
The two best offensive players on the team — by a mile — are Ryan Ellis and Roman Josi, two very good defensemen having two great seasons. They’re right now sitting in MVP/Norris territory, but they’re really the only ones.
This is to say nothing of the goaltenders, who have had a ton of help and done nothing with it. In all situations, the Predators allow the fourth-fewest adjusted-goals against per 60 in the league, and yet Juuse Saros and Pekka Rinne have combined to allow about 20.4 goals more than expected. Which is especially hard to do because the team in front of them doesn’t really give up a lot of looks (6th-fewest attempts per hour, fourth-fewest SOG).
All of which is why this team, with the fourth-best expected-goal share in the league, is 17th in points percentage. If things continue as they have, they’re a fringe playoff team, at best.
It’s maybe something we should have seen coming. The top-3 defensemen on this team — Ellis, Josi, and Mattias Ekholm — are very good. After that the mix of Dan Hamhuis, Yannick Weber/Matt Irwin, and newcomer Dante Fabbro was just a bunch of question marks.
Up front, Duchene was coming off a very nice year, but one that was well outside the norm for his long-term production levels. Turris was coming off a disappointing season, Forsberg (solid but not great) and Arvidsson (unexpectedly effective) were returning from injury-shortened campaigns, and Ryan Johansen continued to be his perfectly-acceptable-if-overpaid self. All except Arvidsson took a step back. It now doesn’t seem as though there was enough depth that could actually put the puck in the net to help them pick up the slack.
While Rinne was two years removed from a Vezina campaign and was a good player last year, he’s also 37. And where Saros once seemed like he might be the goaltender of the future in Nashville, his performances have steadily declined over time.
Age is a factor with this group, long-term. With the exception of Fabbro (21), Saros (24), Forsberg (25), and Arvidsson (26), everyone mentioned above is at least 27 years old. That means only those four guys are still in what could be considered their prime years, and two of them are coming to the end of that prime, with a third maybe just not being good in the first place.
How a team this expensive, strong on paper, and seemingly playing well, is underperforming this badly should prompt a lot of questions. From the dressing room to behind the bench to the front office, the answers probably won’t prove satisfactory.